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Now, it gets real – at last

Posted Aug 28, 2014

Editorial: As 2014 preseason moves finally into the rearview, Jaguars improvement looks significant – and real.

JACKSONVILLE – And so we move on …

And so we move forward …

We move forward now from the Jaguars’ 2014 preseason, putting behind us at last an offseason of talk, Twitter, speculation and debate. The spring is long in the rearview – remember the draft? – and training camp’s searing heat is really done. When the final seconds of a 24-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2014 preseason finale drained from the clocks at a refurbished, re-energized EverBank Field Thursday night, it was finally, officially here:

The regular season, baby … at last. At long, long last.

Is this team ready? That’s the question you must ask after preseason, and honestly, Thursday at the ‘Bank offered little on that front.

Thursday night was a cautionary tune up in every sense of the phrase, the idea being to be as prepared as possible for the regular season while being as healthy as possible, too.

Toward that end, starting LEO Chris Clemons didn’t play, and neither did starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, or defensive tackle Roy Miller, or left tackle Luke Joeckel, or safety Johnathan Cyprien, or running back Toby Gerhart, or tight end Marcedes Lewis.

Starting quarterback Chad Henne didn’t, either. And though that meant Jaguars fans got a chance to see rookie Blake Bortles for the first time in a starting role, it absolutely didn’t change the overriding preseason storyline.

That storyline? That Henne is very much the starting quarterback entering the season.

Yes, Bortles has looked very impressive. And yes, his performance Thursday stayed in that vein. He completed four of six passes for 86 yards. He also threw a beautiful 57-yard touchdown to rookie wide receiver Marqise Lee. It was the sort of three-series, one-quarter performance that will only heighten the buzz around the young quarterback.

The guy looked the part. He showed about everything you want a quarterback to show. He looked downfield first, and had very good awareness and presence in the pocket. He gave everyone – fans, media, coaches, personnel types – confidence that his future is bright.

And it is bright. Probably very bright.

What that future isn’t, is the present. Henne is starting the regular season for the very simple reason that the coaches believe in him, believe in his experience and believe he’s the best choice to lead a young offense. So for this editorial, we’ll move on to other significant events from Thursday.

Foremost in that category is the competition at center, a competition that appears to be playing itself out with rookie Luke Bowanko as the starter and journeyman Jacques McClendon as the backup. It’s not the result many expected before the preseason, but Bowanko impressed the coaches with his athleticism and toughness.

Bowanko wasn’t talking like a kid with the job secured Thursday night, and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said the coaches will decide between Bowanko, McClendon and Mike Brewster after reviewing the game. Still, Bowanko started Thursday with McClendon at left guard, and you’d figure if McClendon was the center he would have been there for the finale.

Stay tuned on that, but Bowanko at first glance is impressive, improving – and confident, too.

If called, are you ready?, Bowanko was asked Thursday.

“Heck, yeah,” he said. “I wasn’t a combine guy. I wasn’t a Senior Bowl guy. A lot of people questioned, ‘Why did they draft this guy who didn’t do this stuff? The chip’s on my shoulder. I know I can play at this level.”

Bowanko starting would make a young line younger, but that would fit with what is by any definition a staggeringly young offense. Add that to a defense that isn’t exactly veteran in the secondary, and you have a strikingly young team.

So, is that team ready?

They would love to feel more confident in the offensive line. They would love to be more experienced at receiver. They would love to have the running game a bit more dialed in. They would love to be a little further along in the building process. Who wouldn’t?

But what they may be is a team that’s closer to finding its’ identity, Bradley’s identity.

“I think we’ve learned that for us to be successful, we can’t do it alone,” Bradley said. “I told them that we don’t have any celebrities; we have servants, guys who are really trying to help each other get better. That’s how we operate, that’s how we play our best. If we play with great energy, great enthusiasm, great toughness and play smart, then I think that I really like the way we are.”

The Jaguars, too, appear solid defensively. They have shown glimpses in the running game. They feel good about quarterback, future and present, and like the future at wide receiver. No, you’re never completely ready, but there’s no doubt the Jaguars are better right now than they were last year entering the regular season.

And about that regular season? Well, it’s here, baby – here at last. At long, long last.

Let’s get to it.


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